Words can be a means of containment: a defence against contamination. In the face of imminent danger, it is not unusual for the person threatened to recite words, in the form of incantation, prayers, or profanities, for example, in order to ward off evil, to keep something at bay. In these circumstances it is as though the words themselves were being used to create space or a protective wall: to make a distance and maintain a distinction.
What kind of writing is the gallery text? Or, to put it another way, what are these words being used for in this situation? Ostensibly the gallery text provides some kind of explanation of the work: it provides information to make the art more accessible. But what does this assume about art, that it is the kind of thing that can benefit from a text panel of information? The answer to this question, will depend, amongst other things, on what information is being offered. So we could ask not only what does the text tell us about the art but what does it do to the art?
The problem for the use of the text panel in the gallery is that the text cannot help but be presented as an authoritative, or privileged, source of information about the art. This is true regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the information presented. The presentation of information is inseparable from a question of control.
There is also the question of who wrote the text. Is the artist in a privileged position to write about her or his own work, as opposed to anyone else? The answer might be yes and no. What would it mean to think that the artist is particularly resistant to the ideological distortions of art discourse and practice? Equally, what would be at stake in disregarding the thought of the artist – to assume that she or he is inarticulate about her or his practice? And what kind of expertise, or insight, might we expect from the gallerist, curator or others?
Explanation, however cautious, proscribes a certain kind of uncertainty. What is it, in this situation, that makes uncertainty seem untenable or unbearable?
Another way of thinking of the gallery text, is as an act of ideological reassurance. It promotes the idea that the artwork is meaningful and worthwhile. The presence of text is the assertion of certainty: the imposition of order, clarity and consistency upon the work. It is to give an explanation, as if art was the type of thing that demanded explanation (regardless of what the explanation might be). What kind of thing does this assume art is?
The alternative to a gallery text is the lack of a gallery text, a kind of silence. This implies that art is an object that stands alone, without the need for words. What does this assume about art? What kind of circumstances would art have to exist in, for it to seem beneficial to leave it in silence, without explanation? What would be being denied here, apart from the voice of the artist? The lack of text can also be a defence against contamination: to render the art (and artist) mute. Silence leaves art without words to defend itself.
Words need not be explanation. It might be apposite to wonder what other forms of words might be possible vis-a-vis art in an art gallery? What might it be possible to do with words and art, that did not constitute a relationship of an object in need of explanation with a corresponding explanatory text?
It might seem as though the gallery text is aimed at the gallery visitor: as both an attempt to enlighten but also as an attempt to contain and control her or his possible responses. Indeed, the gallery visitor can also be a contaminant. But what is striking about the typical gallery text is how little information it provides: the thinness of its explanations and its ambitions. It seems quite possible that the gallery text is there to reassure the institution, as much as to inform the visitor. The text’s insistence on meaning could be read as a defence against the alien, contingent and unaccountable. And this might be more than a defence against the contamination of the gallery by the art which comes into it. If we think of the gallery as always already contaminated (and, we might ask, how could it ever be otherwise?), then the gallery text is not so much part of a defence against contamination from without as a covering up of a lack of coherence within. This is to say, what if the gallery is founded upon divisions, contradictions and contingencies? If this is so, then the defence against contamination is not the staving off of the disaster to come but the denial of the disaster that has already happened.
Writing which contains or defends against a contamination, can itself contaminate the erstwhile contaminant. Ideas, too, can be a form of contamination. They can infect, so to speak, a discourse and spread from discoursee to discoursee. And other ideas can be used to contain or corrupt the original idea.
The gallery text can be both containment and contaminant. Indeed, the distinction between containment and contaminant is not so easy to maintain.